In 2007, North Carolina DNA Day was created to commemorate the completion, in 2003, of the Human Genome Project, and the publication, in 1953, of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix.
Each year, in celebration of the day, North Carolina’s leading research universities and institutions send postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and professors—known as “ambassadors”—to high school classrooms around the state as part of a science outreach effort. The day provides opportunities for younger students to communicate with scientists and learn from them via lessons and discussion.
Although the School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate Education (OGE) participates in the annual event by sending ambassadors into the field, this year the OGE wanted to expand its outreach.
“We wanted a way for students to experience more, so we invited them to Chapel Hill to enjoy hands-on activities from scientists and watch demonstrations,” said Jessica Harrell, PhD, director of the Academic Career Excellence in the OGE.
The hands-on activities and demonstrations were part of the first DNA Day 5K Race and Science Festival, hosted by the OGE and several sponsors. Students ranging in age from elementary school to high school attended the event, which featured the work of scientists and educators from UNC, Duke, and area companies. Sponsors, including local businesses and many companies from around Research Triangle Park, donated funds and prizes.
The 5K race, organized by a team led by Microbiology and Immunology graduate student Cheryl Miller and Jeff Steinbach, OGE staff, registered 271 runners and raised nearly $4,000 for future DNA Day outreach. Josh Hall, PhD, director of Science Outreach in the OGE, will be able to spend the money to send next year’s ambassadors into high school classrooms for DNA Day as well as cover expenses associated with other outreach activities.
“We had runners of all ages,” said Miller. “There are so many 5K races that it’s difficult for one race to stand out over another. But tying the race to the festival allowed ours to be noticed. After the race, registrants could attend the festival and see exactly what the fundraising was for and what we teach kids.”
Participants in the race arrived in good spirits and were ready to celebrate the occasion. Some even ran in costume, dressing up as chromosomes and fruit flies. The enthusiasm for the science festival immediately following the race was equally high, according to Harrell, who organized it with another team of graduate students and post-docs.
“We’ve had a lot of positive comments about the event, especially because of its outreach to kids,” said Harrell.
A wide range of sponsors participated in the festival, which included booths led by scientists from UNC, Duke, and companies from around the Triangle. Between 150 and 200 students from across the state attended the event, ranging in age from elementary school to high school.
Harrell believes the success of the event will serve as a model for future DNA Day races and festivals and improve science outreach efforts in the future.
“Previously we’ve relied on small grants to fund DNA Day,” said Harrell. “With the turnout at the event and the excitement surrounding it, we hope we can use this to help us pair scientists with high school teachers throughout the school year and facilitate connections between them.”
The impact of the race and festival will not only continue the effort to improve scientific education for students, it will also provide an opportunity for scientists and high school educators to communicate with each other and will continue to build their interest in research and teaching.
Although Miller will be leaving UNC for her postdoctoral fellowship at Washington State University, she’s excited about the enthusiasm for the event, and she insists it won’t be the last race and science festival for DNA Day—the organizers intend to make it an annual event.
“It was such a great event,” said Miller. “I won’t be here next year, but I’ll help everyone to make sure this happens again.”